This is part seven of a 12-part series on how to skillfully train in the Eight Mahayana Precepts. The 15th of every month is Precepts Day, when Kadampa practitioners around the world typically take and observe the Precepts.
The actual Mahayana precept we take on precepts days is to abandon all sexual activity. Ordained people take a vow to not engage in sexual activity with other people, in other words they have a vow of celibacy. I am not ordained and so therefore I am certainly not qualified to definitively interpret the vows of ordained people, but I have been told an ordained person’s vows do not prohibit masturbation, though doing so is considered to weaken the vows but not actually break them. In contrast, when we take the Mahayana precept to not engage in sexual activity, it does include not masturbating.
Many people misunderstand vows of celibacy and abandoning sexual activity as saying that there is something inherently wrong with sexual activity. They argue that sexual activity is entirely normal and healthy, and such vows are misguided and guilt-inducing, and therefore harmful. In truth, there is nothing wrong with sexual activity itself. But there is something wrong with the mind of sexual attachment. Attachment is a delusion that believes happiness comes from external objects. Sexual attachment is a specific form of attachment related to sexual activities. Engaging in sexual activities without attachment is not a problem, but engaging in sexual activities with sexual attachment is a problem.
The reason why we take a vow to abstain from sexual activity on precepts days is to force us to confront the tendencies of sexual attachment within our mind. Because we have taken a vow to not engage in such activity on this day, when the temptation arises to do so within our mind, we will see the power of our sexual attachment. It will actually be painful or difficult to not follow the impulses we are feeling. All sorts of rationalizations will arise as to why it is a good thing to follow our sexual attachment. When this occurs, we can then recall the disadvantages of the mind of attachment in general, and sexual attachment in particular, and we can contemplate the benefits of having a mind that is completely free from such attachment to strengthen the desire within our mind to become free of this extremely powerful delusion. The point of taking this precept is not to say sexual activity itself is bad, but rather to create the karmic habits of not being a puppet on the strings of our sexual attachment and to instead become free from it.
Driven by sexual attachment living beings engage in all sorts of negative actions, including killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive speech, and so forth. We also waste so much of our precious human life and our hard-earned resources in pursuit of satisfying our sexual attachment. Most of our most shameful behavior can be traced back to our sexual attachment. Much of the conflict we have with those we love comes from sexual attachment. This mind creates so much suffering in the world and within our own mind, yet we still continue to follow it believing happiness can be found in doing so. Imagine how much easier our life would be if we were not a slave to our sexual attachment. These are the sorts of things we need to consider when the temptation to break our precept arises within our mind. Engaging in these contemplations gradually weakens the hold our sexual attachment has over us enabling us to become more free.
While on precepts days we vow to abstain from any sexual activity, every other day we should strive to abandon all forms of sexual misconduct. The object of our sexual misconduct is if we have a vow of celibacy, it is any other person; if we are not celibate and we have a partner, it is anyone other than our partner; if we are not celibate and do not have a partner, it is anyone else’s partner, our own parent, a child, anyone with a vow of celibacy, pregnant women, animals, or anyone who does not consent. As far as the intention is concerned, we must know that they are an object of sexual misconduct. We must be determined to commit sexual misconduct. And we must be motivated by delusion. Usually, it is committed out of desirous attachment. As far as the preparation is concerned, there are many ways to engage in this action but we already know all of those! This action is complete when sexual bliss is experienced by means of the union of the two sex organs. This last point on the action being completed sometimes gives rise to the question, “well then is it sexual misconduct if our sex organs do not come into union?” The answer to this question is very simple: if you think your partner would object, then it is not OK. Full stop.
Please note, within Kadampa Buddhism, heterosexuality and homosexuality are treated in exactly the same way, there is no difference. Please note, it also does not include masturbation. Finally please note, this also doesn’t say it is wrong to engage in sexual activity for reasons other than procreation, it says nothing about anything wrong with birth control, etc., etc., etc.
I have posted in the past why people engage in affairs (you can find it by doing a search of the archive). The short version is we relate to our partner and to sexual activity in the same way we relate to any other object of attachment, like pizza. The first few pieces are good, but the more we eat the less we enjoy it. Other foods start to look more appealing, so we switch to eating something else. This is the completely wrong understanding of sexual actions. Sexual actions are opportunities to cherish others and give them happiness, not something we consume for ourselves. We derive our enjoyment from loving others and making them happy. Sexual activity is an opportunity to draw very close to somebody else and deepen a relationship. If we do not get our attitude towards sexual activity correct, then even if it is not sexual misconduct, it is still not necessarily a good thing for us.
It is not at all uncommon for one partner in a couple to have stronger sexual desire than the other, and this can be a source of frustration and a temptation to go elsewhere. Aside from the fact that there are other means to relieve oneself, we should view these gaps in sexual desire as emanated by Dorje Shugden to give us an opportunity to bring our sexual attachment a bit more under control. In this sense, it is a similitude of the ordination vows of celibacy. We are essentially saying we will be celibate with everybody except our partner. Bringing our sexual attachment under control is not easy, but it is still necessary. Buddha said the three biggest chains holding us in samsara are sex, drugs and rock n’ roll (well, those weren’t his exact words, but the meaning was the same). If we do not bring our sexual attachment under control, it will be very difficult to escape from samsara. So from this perspective, the difference between an ordained person and a lay person in a committed relationship is not that different. We have much we can learn from each other.
If we have strong sexual attachment, we can pursue a multi-prong strategy. First, we should read Chapter 8 in Meaningful to Behold again and again to help us reduce our exaggerated notions of the attractiveness of another human body. I love breasts, I will admit it, but if we check they are just bags of fat. Second, as best we can, we should avoid things that fuel the fire, such as pornography, etc. But the reality is sexual imagery is omni-present in our society, so there is no avoiding it. But there is a difference between encountering it as we go about our life and seeking it out compulsively.
Third, and this is the most important, we need to get to the point where we want to get out of samsara more than we want its pleasures. We are desire realm beings, which means we have no choice but to pursue our desires. If in our heart, our desire is still dominated by sexual attachment, if we try to force ourselves to avoid making contact, etc., then all we will do is just repress the desires. They will build up, and eventually we will give in and do something we subsequently regret. This is not Dharma practice. Dharma practice is a very active process of picking apart and reducing our desirous attachment primarily by (1) reducing our exaggerated attitudes down to something in line with the underlying reality of what is actually there, and (2) considering the disadvantages of following the delusion.
There are few delusions that create more problems for living beings than sexual attachment. Just open any newspaper or consider your own life for more than 3 seconds and you will have plenty of material to work with. At the same time, we need to consider the advantages of not following the delusion. Every time a delusion arises but we choose to not follow it understanding it to be deceptive, we are engaging in the practice of moral discipline. Each action of moral discipline creates the cause for a higher rebirth. So quite literally, if in a given 5-minute period we successfully see through the lies of our sexual attachment and not follow it, say 20 times, then we just created 20 causes for 20 future higher rebirths. What will bring more happiness, five minutes of some porn video or an entire lifetime in the upper realms? Are we ready to sacrifice one for the other? If so, which one will we sacrifice? If we value the happiness of our future lives as much as we value our present happiness (the definition of a spiritual being) then the choice becomes obvious.
There is much more that can be said, but I will stop here.
2 thoughts on “A Pure Life: Abandoning Sexual Activity”
Can you make a post about Buddhist views on abortion? It would be helpful to have that discussion
As as ordained nun, I must correct you and say that masturbation is not permitted for the ordained.
Having been a Kadampa for over 20 years, I was told this by someone very close to Geshe-la.
Also, during our pre-ordination teaching, this was also reinstated.
All that you do is very appreciated and very well received, so thank you for that☺️